John Marston is a classic American antihero. Raised on a diet of blood and thunder in the Old West, by 1911 he is a reformed outlaw living in peace. But when corrupt federal agents threaten his family, he's forced to cross the frontier to hunt down and capture his felonious former friends. The Western is one of the oldest and best-loved of movie genres, but it has almost never been successfully translated into a video game, until now.
Marston is the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption, a new game for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 from Rockstar, the studio that created Grand Theft Auto. With a budget of about $100m [£70m], it is perhaps the most expensive game ever produced. And with uniformly terrific reviews from the specialist and mainstream press, it looks set to be among the most successful, too. Red Dead Redemption hits shelves in the UK today, and experts expect the game's global sales this summer to reach anything up to four million.
"No one has had much success with Western games in the past," says Tim Ingham, the editor of games website computervideogames.com. "Until Red Dead Redemption reached reviewers, many were saying that the Wild West meant nothing to people under 40, and that gamers would respond badly to it. But what's happened instead is that, because gamers aren't accustomed to that world, they are finding it refreshing. We've become somewhat jaded by running around the same cities with the same guns; this is something new."
Among the incredible reviews from the US is one by Seth Schiesel of The New York Times. A reviewer for the paper since 1996, Mr Schiesel wrote: "I have never before called anything a tour-de-force. Yet there is no more succinct and appropriate way to describe Red Dead Redemption."
Mr Ingham explains: "Arts and Culture editors at newspapers are often blokes in their 40s or 50s who are interested in video games but might not quite get them. Finally, one has come along whose themes and appeal they understand. Hopefully the same will be true of consumers."
Like Grand Theft Auto, the game is of the so-called "sandbox" genre, which presents players with an open world in which they are free to roam, dealing with the situations and conflicts they encounter in any way they choose. Marston is often faced with moral dilemmas, and the manner in which each player deals with them allows them to lose or accumulate "honour" points. Capture a criminal alive and you'll earn points; let a gang kidnap a civilian without intervening and you'll lose them again.
However, while the game has an 18 certificate like Grand Theft Auto, and is equally prone to violence, it is less likely to be controversial thanks to the historical context of that violence. Indeed, it owes a great deal not only to other computer games, but to gritty film and television classics of the genre, such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and HBO's acclaimed series Deadwood. "It's a really gripping story." says Mr Ingham, "And perhaps the finest voice-acted experience the games industry has ever produced."
A $100m budget may sound huge for a video game but, Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business, says it is a massive undertaking. "The money is spent on people, and more than 1,000 were involved in the production of Red Dead Redemption. Hundreds of designers are required to build the world of the game, which takes a vast range of skills: texture mappers, artists, animators, lighting experts, sound experts, a sizeable orchestra, a cast of over 100 people doing incidental voices, and 50 doing the main voices."
The game's Western-style soundtrack was composed by members of the instrumental rock band Friends Of Dean Martinez, and features contributions from such high- profile stars as José González.
Though Red Dead Redemption's development was led by the company's San Diego studio, Rockstar is among the great success stories of the British gaming industry. Its English founders, brothers Sam and Dan Houser, grew up in London and began their careers in the music industry before creating the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. Rockstar, which they founded after moving to New York in 1998, is part of the US firm Take Two Interactive, but maintains studios in England and Scotland.
The brothers are notoriously shy of the spotlight despite their growing cultural influence, though rumours persist that they are both perfectionists and demanding. Gaming bloggers alleged that during the production of Red Dead Redemption, a coalition of workers' wives protested to the company that their husbands were working excessive hours in poor conditions. Yet their approach has given the Housers and their company an almost perfect record of success. Red Dead Redemption had an unofficial precursor called Red Dead Revolver, released in 2004, but it is essentially a new franchise and, until recently, an unknown quantity. Many investors predicted the company might struggle in a year without a new Grand Theft Auto title, but the new game's critical success would suggest they were mistaken.
Red Dead Redemption is the biggest release of the year so far, but it will face competition: a new Halo sequel is due for the Xbox 360, Sony is releasing a third title in their Kill Zone series, while the classic Zelda is being rebooted for a new generation of Nintendo users. Mr Chatfield says the mainstream games industry is blockbuster dominated, like the film industry.
"The fastest growing games in terms of player numbers may be cheap and simple online or iPhone games. But the biggest financial rewards are with big-release titles like Red Dead Redemption, and other franchises like Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto. They can generate opening weekends of over half a billion dollars in sales." For the first time in memory, however, games industry growth has been stalled by the recession, with spending on games in the US down month on month. In that sort of climate, and with a media-saturating marketing campaign, Red Dead Redemption must succeed and, says Mr Chatfield: "If that success is not stratospheric, it will be considered a failure."
The gameocracy: So who is making a killing from the games industry?
Mechner, 45, wanted to be a filmmaker, but, in 1989, the young computer programmer created one of the most popular and lauded titles of all time, Prince of Persia, for the Mac II, and other long forgotten consoles from the likes of Amstrad and Atari. Mechner enrolled in film school and made a short documentary about poor living conditions in Cuba, but it took him more than 20 years to achieve his real ambition, as the screenwriter of this summer's $200m film adaptation of Prince of Persia, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
The Japanese designer Miyamoto, 57, is among the most established stars in gaming. Among the vastly successful titles on his CV are the classic franchises Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda, inspired by his childhood exploration of the countryside around his Kyoto home. Miyamoto's has mostly created games for Nintendo, and he added to his list of hits in the 2000s when he produced Nintendogs for the handheld DS console.
The games of British designer Molyneux, 50, have earned him the first OBE for services to games, and the title of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. The creator of so-called "God" games, his first major title was 1989's Populous. More recently he was responsible for the fantasy role-playing game Fable, which is about to release a second sequel. He is also involved in designing games for Project Natal, the highly-anticipated "controller-free gaming and entertainment experience" for the Xbox 360.
Jason West and Vince Zampella
Until recently, West and Zampella were president and CEO of Infinity Ward, worshipped by gamers for their blockbuster Second World War game Call of Duty. When they were fired by parent company Activision, half of their workers went with them. The pair are still embroiled in a legal battle with their former employees after serving the publisher a $36m lawsuit over royalties for Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare. In the meantime, West and Zampella have set up a studio of their own, Respawn Entertainment, and signed up to work with Activision's rival industry giant, EA Games.
Alex Seropian and Jason Jones
Seropian and Jones co-founded Bungie and created the Halo series for Xbox. Bungie was founded in 1991 and acquired by Microsoft in 2000, in time for the company to attach its first-person shooter game Halo: Combat Evolved to its new console. Bungie and Microsoft then parted ways, and Seropian is now VP of game development for Disney. Jones continues to oversee production of the Halo series.